COLUMBIA — It was in mid-January when Jeff Wallace received a sudden phone call from Doug Mirts, the Hickman High School athletic director, asking for his help.
Wallace’s days of coaching varsity boys soccer at Hickman, a program he started 27 years ago, had been over for nearly nine years. He had spent the past four of those years enjoying retirement in Columbia, keeping himself busy with many construction projects.
Mirts explained to Wallace that varsity girls soccer coach Jon Strodtman, who had been battling intestinal cancer for eight years, was no longer strong enough to assume all the duties of a head coach and was looking for help.
Wallace was hesitant. In addition to being content with retirement, he is a father of three boys and had never coached girls before.
“I wasn’t sure if it was going to be the right fit for me,” Wallace said.
It wasn’t until Wallace went to visit Strodtman to talk with him about the job that he began to change his mind.
Although they had worked together as coaches, it was their shared passion for home repair and construction that truly forged their relationship. They would often ask for each other’s assistance on projects they were working on, and when it came down to it, Wallace said this favor was no different.
“(Strodtman) thought he wanted me to help, and I sort of felt that if I’m who he wants to help him, than I’m going to help,” Wallace said.
Wallace took the job. About three weeks later, Strodtman died, and Wallace stepped up and volunteered to become head coach for the year.
Still apprehensive about coaching girls, Wallace brought in another retired Hickman soccer coach, Sandy Paulsen, to be his assistant. The two of them then began the process of healing a team that had just lost its coach and close friend.
It has been the efforts of these two retired coaches that have taken a team still affected by the spirit of its former coach, and kept its players strong and positive in what might otherwise have been a season full of emotional struggle and disappointment.
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On a sunny Friday afternoon the day before senior prom, five of the 10 seniors on the Hickman varsity girls soccer team sit together on the field after practice discussing their plans. Friends since grade school, prom was an event they planned on spending together and they had the evening all mapped out.
For them, high school soccer has only made their friendship stronger, and based on what they say about Strodtman, he’s the reason why. When they talk about the turn in health that led to his death, the mood suddenly becomes much more quiet and reflective.
“What do you think, Liz?” Kelsey Mescher asks encouragingly of Liz Gayer, who remains quiet as her other teammates share their thoughts about Strodtman.
Gayer, who had played for Strodtman since she was a freshman, sits holding her legs with her face pressed to her knees, trying to hold back the tears that speaking of Strodtman evoke. She contributes only a few memories, some fond and some more difficult. Her silence speaks more to the impact he had on her as a coach. A week before his death, Strodtman was at Gayer’s side when she signed a letter of intent to play soccer for Missouri this fall.
So while the girls dedicated their season to Strodtman and wear black armbands in his memory for every game, it’s mostly the lasting impression he left on all of his players that still makes him a part of the team.
Wallace noticed this quickly and said he knew his first challenge would be filling the void that Stodtman’s death created. He said he made it a point to start off in a way that would be sensitive to the girls’ situation.
“From the very get-go I tried to be up front that there’s no way I’m going to replace Jon Strodtman,” he said.
Wallace was also clear about needing help from Paulsen, his long-time colleague.
Paulsen retired as the head coach of the Hickman varsity girls soccer team in 2004 after starting the program in 1987, but Wallace’s phone call brought her back.
“He said ‘Sandra Jean’ — because that’s what he always calls me — ‘I’m in kind of a bind here and I wanted to know if you’d help,’” Paulsen said.
Wallace said he needed someone who had worked with girls. It was two days before the season began, but Paulsen still agreed.
“He helped me so much when I first started working with him and everything else that I said ‘sure,’” she said.
Wallace said her presence has made all the difference.
“She has been a tremendous help,” he said. “I just can’t emphasize how much.”
Together, they spent time refreshing themselves on the rules, reacquainting themselves with the game, and discussing how to approach the season. One thing they agreed on was to take things easy at first and encourage the girls no matter how they performed.
Paulsen said the first month of transition was the most challenging because both she and Wallace had to decide when it would be appropriate to start working the players harder.
“We kind of took it easy at first and didn’t try to push too hard,” she said. “But then you get to that point where you’ve got to push.”
As the season has progressed, the Kewpies have found little success. At 2-16-3 entering Saturday’s district tournament, Wallace and Paulsen’s continuous challenge has been to keep morale high despite all the losses.
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If you talked to Wallace, Paulsen, or any of the seniors they all say this season is about something more meaningful than scoring goals or beating Rock Bridge.
“I could be way more down on myself right now just looking at the scores that have been coming in every game,” said Mescher, the team’s goalkeeper. “We could all be in a lot worse of a place right now if our coaches weren’t behind us.”
After the first difficult month, the team warmed up to its coaches. Mescher described Wallace as “the kind, gentle, grandpa” and Paulsen as “the crazy aunt,” and her teammates all agreed.
But Paulsen said it was the girls that were so welcoming of her and Wallace.
“These girls after that first month have really been good at taking us both in and adopting us into their little family group,” Paulsen said.
A team attitude has kept the Kewpies together throughout the entire season.
“We’re always there for each other,” Mescher said. “Even if our record doesn’t show it, we’re a strong team.”
More importantly, it’s a team the seniors say they think Strodtman would be proud of.
“I know that he would be happy with our team as a whole because he was always about family,” Mescher said.
Even Gayer mustered up the courage to share her feelings on that thought.
“(Strodtman) really capitalized on leaving it all on the field,” Gayer said. “I’m positive he’d be proud of us.”